Friday, February 11, 2011

Top 10: 2010

2010 was a solid, if not landmark, year in film. The many year-end think pieces that bemoaned a rise in sequels and remakes missed the point. The issue isn't a trend towards high-concept movies that has been happening for 30 years as much Hollywood's increased reluctance to take a chance on movies aimed at adults. It's a shame, for Hollywood as much as for us; if original stories are harder to market than familiar properties, they also speak to an underserved audience. When I saw Inception, The Town, The Fighter and a few others, I could feel the audience's genuine appreciation for an interesting and well-told story with compelling characters. As my little league coaches were fond of saying, it's all about the fundamentals - tell a good story, and they will come.

While a few of the tentpole movies worked wonderfully, several of the films on my list are smaller, character-driven stories. A few are specifically about relationships - finding someone, losing someone, staying together. That these movies spoke to me says as much about what I needed from the cinema in 2010 as it does about the movies themselves. I started the year in a very bittersweet place, trying to figure out what to do with my life; now, I'm finally settled with my kids, happily in love, creatively energized and ready to take on whatever life brings. Through it all, as always, the movies were there for me.

1. The Social Network Long after Facebook is as much of a historical footnote as Mac or Atari, The Social Network will still resonate as a story of the evolution of the internet's role in business, culture and relationships. Impeccably written, shot and acted, the film ties its zeitgeist-defining subject to classical notions of ambition, hubris and betrayal (Maureen Dowd smartly connected the film to Das Rheingold). The image of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) hitting "refresh" over and over again is an embellishment that reveals a greater emotional truth - the more we have the world at our fingertips, the more isolated we become. Like The Graduate, Sex, lies and videotape and other generation-defining movies, The Social Network captures the exact feeling of what it was like to be young at a specific time and place. It's the first American classic of the new decade.

2. Black Swan The kind of movie we all hope Dario Argento still has in him. Love him or hate him, nobody is making the kind of movies Darren Aronofsky is making right now. Whether it's an archetype-heavy metaphysical love story, an intimate character study about a guy named Randy the Ram or a baroque psychosexual thriler set in the world of ballet, the guy is fearless. His movies can be punishing, and Black Swan is no exception; when Nina (Natalie Portman) was tending to her horribly broken toenail, I wondered to myself why I'll gladly pay $9.50 for the privelege of wincing. At the same time, it's the most entertaining movie I saw this year. When directed and acted as perfectly as Aronofsky and Portman have done here, the story of a sexually repressed ballerina going bonkers in the name of creative perfection is a far more thrilling and unpredictable rollercoaster ride than any CGI-riddled 3D extravaganza. It's also one of four movies on this list that contains cunnilingus, a trend in 2010 films that Walter Chaw first observed and one I can get behind.

3. Greenberg I read many anecdotal reports of mass walkouts at Noah Baumbach's latest, presumably by Ben Stiller fans who expected something more like Along Came Polly. It's a shame they didn't stay; it's not only Baumbach's best movie, it's also his warmest. Although the neurotic title character's behavior is sometimes off-putting, Baumbach clearly loves Greenberg and all of his characters, and shows it a little more easily than in his earlier films. The film owes a debt to Hal Ashby and Alan Rudolph not just for its hazy widescreen cinematography (by the great Harris Savides) but for its generosity of spirit. Both Greenberg and Greenberg are difficult to like, but they grow on you.

4. True Grit As I wrote before, it's astonishing how the Coens have made a movie that plays like gangbusters with mainstream audiences without sacrificing their distinctive voice. Their ironic sense of humor has long masked the truth that they are perhaps the most morally centered filmmakers working today; here, they've made a celebration of true heroism that is stunningly sincere. As played to grizzled perfection by Jeff Bridges, Rooster Cogburn is the perfect hero for our time - jaded, cynical, a bit buffoonish but ultimately a character we can count on to do the right thing. The relationship between Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, and the way it develops, is unexpectedly touching. The Coens' trademark wit and Roger Deakins' handsome cinematography breathe new life into a long-dormant genre; who knew 2010 would bring us a classic Western, let alone an adventure story that truly thrills? Are the Coens on a roll or what?

5. Toy Story 3 It was moving the first time I saw it, but it was the second time, as I noticed how carefully the film sets up Bonnie and the ending, that I realized what a great film Toy Story 3 really is. In a genre populated by Gnomeos and Owls of Ga'hoole, Pixar yet again takes the lead by a country mile, making a movie about talking toys that is also about growing up, finding new love, accepting one's mortality and being at peace with the passing of time. The moment when the toys take each others' hands in the face of certain destruction is as profound an image of being and nothingness as I've seen in any movie aimed at adults, let alone a cartoon. Nobody understands children's fears and dreams as well as Pixar; add to their staggering list of achievements the first "part 3" that is better than the first two.

6. Shutter Island Look, I love Martin Scorsese's tortured masterpieces of Catholic guilt, self-loathing and existential dread as much as the next guy. But I also love that Marty has clearly been having a lot of fun lately. Shutter Island, his pulpiest movie, never pretends to be anything other than a bloody valentine to a laundry list of classic horror movies in service to a wonderfully dark and eerie detective story. It's technically perfect, wonderfully acted by the entire cast and posessing unexpected emotional resonance. But ultimately, it's Scorsese having a lark for his and our enjoyment - the greatest living architect of cinema setting up a haunted house for trick 'r' treaters. And I love haunted houses.

7. The Kids Are All Right The reason this works as well as it does has everything to do with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore; I totally believed, from beginning to end, that Nic and Jules were a couple with a 20-year history behind them. Even as the script took some questionable turns in the second half, I believed it because I believed them, and Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as their kids, and Mark Ruffalo as the sexy, spacey but well-meaning sperm donor who turns their lives upside down. As co-written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right is one of the most truthful depictions of a family - any kind of family - that I've ever seen. It gets so many things about being a parent so right that it made me smile from beginning to end.

8. Blue Valentine Probably not the best choice I could have made for a date movie. The contrast between the wide-eyed early stages of the relationship between Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) and its bitter last days is downright abrasive, and understandably off-putting to many. An elderly man in front of us actually begged us to explain the movie afterwards - "First they're breaking up, then they're getting married...Was that the boyfriend or the other guy during the oral session? I'm sticking to cartoons from now on." It's a bitter pill, but I value it because, like Bad Timing, it's uncompromising in delivering some difficult truths about the ways two people in love can grow apart. It avoids simple conclusions or pat answers - I found it interesting that my girlfriend blamed Cindy for the relationship's failure, while I was mostly annoyed with Dean. Director Derek Cianfrance and his stars deserve a lot of credit for going as far as they have; the film is emotionally naked in a way that cinema rarely is. And as I can't listen to Penny and the Quarters without tearing up, it clearly touched a nerve with me.

9. Inception I didn't bother writing about Inception in July because it seemed like the critical response had already encompassed wild praise, thorough analysis, backlash and a backlash to the backlash by the time I caught the 9pm show on opening night. Do you really care, by now, what I have to say about the top? I'll just add now that it's sort of amazing to see a summer blockbuster driven, like several of Nolan's films, by a deep and ineffable sense of loss. How wonderful that Christopher Nolan has made an exciting, edge-of-your-seat thriller driven not by double agents or stolen microfilm but by the persistence of memory. I know that it's hip now to say that Inception only thinks it's smart, but I think it actually is pretty damn smart, with at least one scene (the zero-g hallway fight) that provoked applause from the audience I saw it with, and another (the ending) that elicited frustrated, delighted groans.

10. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World The first time I saw Scott Pilgrim, it made me feel very old. The second time, I was more tuned into its peculiar wavelength, and realized that my main frustration with the movie - that Scott (Michael Cera) is kind of a dick - was something that director Edgar Wright was totally aware of. Taken as the story of a self-centered bass player who, in a media-saturated, hipster-populated existence, actually manages to grow up a little, Scott Pilgrim makes perfect sense. And then I was able to really enjoy the movie's hyperactive charms. How can I not love a movie where two bands have an amp battle ending in their music materializing as giant apes and dragons that do battle, which is also a metaphor for the main character's emerging sense of self-respect? Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the cinematic equivalent of Hostess cupcakes washed down with orange soda - it's sweet, it'll make you spazz out and it's totally tasty.